Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Cecil Sharp Of The Tap Room

Social history is littered with pioneers who dedicate themselves to recording and documenting those things which are in terminal decline. What Cecil Sharp did for English folk songs and dances, John Lomax did for the delta blues in America. What Frank Meadow Sutcliffe did for the fishing communities of North Yorkshire, Roger Fenton did for the bloody battlefields of the Victorian era. We turn to such people for a record of what was, but is no longer. Their genius was not their ability to record - at best a technical skill - but their recognition of the need to record.

I was thinking about this whilst walking Amy today. We have now taken a short break from our epic trek across the American continent (if you haven't already done so, see Fat Dog To The Big Apple) and therefore my mind was free to wander along more spiritual paths. We had reached the bottom of Toothill Bank (future historians might want to take a note of the location) when the sun came out from behind a cloud and shone down onto ....
... onto, well onto the Junction Public House. And I suddenly thought, "that won't be there much longer". So I took a photograph. I documented it. I bagged it. I saved it for posterity. By the time I had reached the end of the road I decided that I had been placed on earth for no other reason than to document every public house I could find. And where they were too far away from me to reasonably be able to document them, I would call upon a vast army of followers and acolytes to join in the crusade. I would become the Cecil Sharp of the Tap Room, the Roger Fenton of the Public Bar.

By the time I had reached the Greyhound Inn (The Greyhound Inn, 132 Crowtrees Lane, Rastrick, Brighouse, HD6 3NH) I had decided that the record should contain more than a digital image - some brief details as well. If you question the need for such a crusade, just note how many pubs you pass have "For Sale" notices outside. Just check the planning permission pages of the local newspaper and see how many people are trying to convert them to half a dozen flats. The great pubs of Great Britain are under threat. It is probably too late to save them, but at least we can document them.

Pubs like the Roundhill Inn (75 Clough Lane, Rastrick, Brighouse, West Yorkshire, HD6 3QL ) pictured above with its new external smoking platform. If there was time, one could stipulate that each pub should be fully documented and sampled, but we are dealing with an emergency here. Future generations will thank us for whatever we can get, even just a photograph.

This will be a massive undertaken with its own giant database and dedicated website. The central processing department will employ 500 people and will have a back-up system based on file cards just in case there is a power cut. It will store details and pictures of all the pubs of Great Britain. It will have a library and meeting rooms. It will be called Alan Burnett House.

By the time Amy and I staggered out of the last pub on our walk (the welcoming Clough House, 129, Clough Lane Rastrick Brighouse HD6 3QL) the idea was fully formed in my mind. It was such a momentous plan, such an audacious proposal that it made my head ache. I had to hurry home to sleep it off.

Kite Surfer on Port Meadow

An addendum to the Photo Blog really. I didn't manage to achieve a decent picture of the man plus his kite, but this is the other half of the scene.
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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Armageddon - a bit

It's not every day one finds the world's media at the bottom of the road. (Though the BBC News did do an item on recycling from Jericho the other week) Anyway, this time it really was the world's media - Sheila in Weirs Lane was interviewed by Dutch TV, and the blue BBC helicopter was overhead all afternoon - so I couldn't resist going down to Osney. We thought they might not let us, or else that there'd be crowds of people, but in fact there weren't that many, and almost all of them were standing in front of a camera or passing a report down a mobile phone, or interviewing someone. I played journalist and took photos and a video of the water charging past Osney Mill until my camera card was full.

We did find some floods. I paddled in one (though not on purpose). And the River Thames was scarily fast, though it still seemed to be an inch below the bank. The flooding was actually caused by the streams that make Osney an island overflowing into the neighbouring streets. The best bit was the weir by the lock, which is scary at any time, plunging like Niagara into the pool below, only this time it wasn't falling, because the river level had come up to that of the lock channel. The lock itself, quite a deep one usually, was the same either side. And those high posts one moors up against, - you could just about see their tops sticking out of the water. We're used to sailing our boat down here at this time of year, for heaven's sake! AB was right, it must be Armageddon .

Monday, July 23, 2007

Post Post

I still think that one of the best science fiction books ever written was "The Day of the Triffids". If you have read it you will recall that the world was threatened by the sudden appearance of a new form of plant life - the triffid - which gained an evolutionary advantage over mankind following a catastrophic natural disaster (in the case of the John Wyndham story, widespread blindness). I know that I have already vowed to restrict my comments about the natural disaster plaguing many parts of the country (the floods), but in view of the potential gravity of the events I am about to describe, I feel I must speak out.

Several weeks ago I began to notice a new kind of entity appear on the grass verges around my part of West Yorkshire. They seemed to appear overnight and for no apparent reason. They are sturdy things, well rooted into the earth and without any visible means of reproduction (see illustration). As far as I am aware, there are no recorded cases where one of these beings has attacked a human being, although they do seem capable of delivering a nasty graze to the skin. Equally, I have noticed that, when walking our dog Amy, she keeps well away from them. The distinctive red marking near the top of the "stem" seems universal and is probably some form of display mechanism used in courtship rituals.

Whilst the appearance of the "Postids" (for thus I have christened them) in itself may not be alarming, I did notice for the first time the other evening evidence that they had begun to move. By carefully concealing myself in a neighbours garden I managed to get a photograph of one of the Postids apparently crawling along the ground to take up a new position.

In view of the unseasonable weather we have been having and the likely ability of these Postids to survive prolonged periods of submersion, I wonder whether we should be worried?

Witch Floods

So far, I have been reluctant to mention the heavy rainfall which has plagued many parts of the United Kingdom over recent weeks and resulted in heavy flooding to many areas. The onset of the storms coincided, somewhat uncomfortably, with the final emergence of the blood-blister from beneath my finger nail (see My Finger And The Coming Armageddon). Newspapers have been quick to develop dramatic descriptions for the severity of the downpours. Whilst one paper will claim it has been the "worst rainfall in living memory", another will counter that "the river is at its highest level since records began". I was about to release a story to the media concerning my finger nail, my prophesy of Armageddon, and the deluge when another potential headline came to mind : "the worst weather since the last witch was burnt at the stake". As you will see, I have therefore kept my thoughts to myself.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

HRH The Duke Of Edinburgh : An Apology

Following the decision of the BBC to apologise to the Queen over the incident where she was wrongly accused of having a temper tantrum during a photo-shoot, I feel that I too must add an apology to her husband whom I accused of giving his name to a scheme of outdoor training which revelled in gratuitous discomfort. (See "Is A Bit Of Discomfort Good For You").

When my son eventually returned from his five days spent walking up and down mountains in the Lake District, I questioned him carefully on his experience. It was, he claimed, the most difficult physical challenge he had ever faced in his life. At times he was cold, wet, tired and hungry. The rules were strict and he was not allowed to pop into a passing Post Office for a Curly Wurly Bar (or anything else). He had to share a tent with three others. He was deprived of his lap-top, his MP3 player, his games console, and his television. What food he ate had to be cooked over a little paraffin stove. And, of course, he had the time of his life and would not have missed it for the world.

I tried offering him a deal. If he could have undertaken the same journey with a little chap carrying his bag for him and nightly stop-overs in a decent four-star hotel, would he have taken me up on the offer. He thought about it briefly but turned me down.

It causes one to question what has become of the youth of today. We try to bring them up to appreciate a nice, comfortable, materialistic lifestyle and they throw it in our faces and find enjoyment in tramping around muddy fields and swimming in ice-cold rivers. There is no justice in this world.

OK Your Royal Highness. You were right and I was wrong. Sorry

(err ... will I be alright for my MBE now?)

Friday, July 13, 2007

Parish Politics

The topic for discussion today is the lyrics of Mitchell Parish.

You may not be familiar with the late Mitchell Parish (or Michael Hyman Pashelinsky to give him his real name) but you will probably be familiar with many of his lyrics. Sweet Lorraine, Stars Fell on Alabama, and Volare are all part of his catalogue based on a career which stretched from 1919, when he was hired as a staff writer for a Tin Pan Alley music publisher, right up to his death, aged 93, in 1993. Perhaps his most famous lyrics were the ones for the Hoagy Carmichael song Stardust, a song which has frequently featured in lists of the best popular songs ever written. He also wrote the words to one of my favourite songs of all time, the Duke Ellington composition, Sophisticated Lady.

As with most Ellington tunes, Sophisticated Lady was written as an instrumental and only later, once it had become a popular part of the Ellington repertoire, was a lyricist commissioned to provide words. As, by then, the tune had a firmly established title, this presented a challenge to the lyricist : he or she was already working within confines set in what was the chance naming of a tune.

In the case of Sophisticated Lady, it is said that Ellington named the tune after three of his High School teachers who taught all winter and then toured Europe during the summer months. To the young Ellington, this represented the height of sophistication - hence the title. Ellington wrote the tune in 1932 and it became so popular that in the following year, the Dukes' manager, Irving Mills, commissioned the lyricist Mitchell Parish to add words. As frequently was the case, Mills - who as well as being Ellington's manager was one of the most successful music publishers in the States in the 1920s and 30s - also got his name of the credits for the song although it is difficult to identify his specific contribution.

When Ellington eventually saw the words Parish had produced for his song, he said it was not quite what he had in mind when he first wrote the tune. Nevertheless, he was well satisfied and described the lyrics as "wonderful". If you are not familiar with them, let me remind you of the lyrics:

"They say into your early life romance came
and in this heart of yours burned a flame
a flame that flickered one day and died away.
Then, with dissolution deep in your eyes,
you learned that fools in love soon grow wise
the years have changed you, somehow
I see you now

Smoking, drinking,
never thinking of tomorrow,
diamonds shining,
dancing, dining
with some man in a restaurant.
is that all you really want?

No, sophisticated lady,
I know,
you miss the love you lost long ago
and when nobody is nigh you cry"

Now, I think those are some of the finest lyrics you are ever going to come across and match the mood of the music well (even though, Parish's sophisticated lady was not quite the sort Ellington had in mind). However, the lyrics have come in for considerable criticism over the years. The critic and songwriter Alec Wilder described them as "excruciating", claiming that the chorus is "scarcely lyrical". In his book, "The Poets of Tin Pan Alley", Professor Philip Furia cites "Sophisticated Lady" as an unfortunate example of a "superb song" being saddled with "sentimentally didactic lyrics" which "work against Ellington's elegantly sensuous music".

Personally, I think they are very wrong. But you will need to sit back and listed to Sophisticated Lady yourself and make your own mind up.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Busy Dead-Heading The Daisy Tree

I feel the need to respond to all those people who contacted me to find out why there has not been a posting for almost a week. Or rather, I would feel the need to respond if anyone had contacted me. But they haven't. So I won't.

It's just that people were talking the other night. About the sadness of bloggers. About how they were responsible for perpetrating a heinous crime against humanity. About how they had taken something as tedious and dull as the annual Christmas Round-Robin letter and turned it into a new black art : a weapon of mass boredom. I didn't really join in the conversation. I just sat there and looked out of the window. To be quite honest I had difficulty hearing - there was a cock crowing somewhere and this made it difficult for me to pick up what was being said.

Anyway, quite independent of all this I have been very busy these last few days and just haven't had time to submit a posting. We are going on holiday in less than three weeks time and therefore I have had to get the cases out and dust them. It's been go, go, go, all the time. My life is so full at the moment, writing silly blogs is the last thing on my mind.

Must go now, I need to dead-head the daisy trees.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Household Hints

"Do not throw away old newspapers, for they can be put to a variety of uses. Here are three : A. If laid in sheets in cupboards and drawers, they will keep clothes and linen free from moths for a time. B. Nothing is more insanitary than a dirty dustbin. Newspaper burned occasionally in a bin (after it has been emptied) will dry it, and greatly assist in keeping it clean. C. A sheet of newspaper, crumpled into a ball and used as a duster, will impart a good shine to windows"

Looking for something at the bottom of a long-ignored drawer I came across an old cigarette packet. The packet of "Wild Woodbine" cigarettes is almost a thing of beauty in itself. The colour combination - blacks, browns and green - would never be found today : the black print against the brown background is difficult to read but overall the visual impact is iconic. Inside the packet is not the promised 10 cigarettes, but a set of 50 cigarette cards. The Household Hints set was published by W. D. and H. O. Wills in 1936, one card being given away free in each packet of cigarettes.

The quotation at the top of this posting is from the reverse of Card No. 23 of the set - "Three Uses For Old Newspapers". Like so many other contemporary documents, the card provides a wonderful insight into life in Britain seventy years ago. The threats facing the average family centre around clothes being attacked by moths and dirty dustbins (nothing is more insanitary). Use B provides perhaps the best illustration of how times have changed since the 1930s. Dirty dustbins remain a problem in the twenty-first century (although the claim that it is the most insanitary situation facing the average family is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration). Today, the problem is dealt with, in my case, by a firm called Wheelie Wash ("Professional Cleaning Services of Refuse Bins Domestic and Commercial"). For £2.50 they call once a month with a special machine that power-washes and disinfects the bin. If I tried the approach suggested by the cigarette card, I suspect it would lead to some unexpected problems. As most bins today are made out of plastic the chances are that the whole thing would melt.

Another card looks at how the bristles on a broom can be restored by bathing them in steam from a boiling kettle. A third looks at the secrets of the lost art of distempering. I can vaguely remember my parents talking about distempering the cellar, but for details I had to look "distemper" up on the internet. According to Wikipedia, distemper is made from powdered chalk or lime and size. According to Wikipedia, many Medieval and Renaissance painters used distemper painting rather than oil paint for some of their works. By the 1930s, however, it was limited to working class cellars and attics. The cigarette card concentrates on how to apply distemper to walls and ceilings rather than the artistic interpretation of medieval frescos.

Times have changed. Today, the cigarette-smoker crouching in a rain-streaked doorway or sat at home in splendid isolation will find no cards in his or her cigarette packet. They will never know what to do with their old newspapers.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Is A Bit Of Discomfort Good For You?

Is a bit of discomfort good for you? Is it character-building? Are you a better person because of it? As I watch my son prepare for his Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award Expedition in the Lake District this weekend, I ask myself these questions. It has been raining for the best part of a month and the forecast for the next few days is for it to continue. He will be walking for five days in the Lake District carrying a heavy pack and sleeping in a wet, damp tent. He will not be doing this because he is miles from civilisation or because he is too poor to afford bus fare or a decent bag of chips. He will be doing it in order to get an award which is increasing becoming an essential component of university entrance. The chances are he will not enjoy it, nor will the experience convert him to the joys of nature. It is more likely to lead him to associate natural beauty with discomfort and misery. And nobody seems to stop and ask "Why?"

Oh I have seen all the arguments, and as far as I can tell, none of them stand up to even the most preliminary analysis. Proper teamwork can only result from a situation which is physically challenging. Bollocks. A harsh environment provides the necessary test-bed for the development of leadership skills. Rubbish. Participants gain additional confidence and satisfaction by overcoming challenges. Crap. Where does all of this come from? There will probably be plenty of material which claims that walking too far carrying too much is good for you, but most of it will have been written by people who run Outdoor Centres or organise Adventure Award Schemes.
At the end of the day it all boils down to a belief that a bit of discomfort is good for you. It is a kind of watered-down, twenty first century descendant of the ideas about flagellation in the Middle Ages. In those days you could help to atone for disasters like the Black Death by walking through the streets of Europe whipping yourself. Nowadays, you can help to atone for global warming, the breakdown of social order, and deforestation by carrying a big pack through the rain soaked valleys of Cumbria.

As I take him down to catch the coach on Friday morning, I will say something cheery to him like "Don't worry, you'll enjoy it really". But I know he won't.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Great SmokeFest

There were more cigars than in your average humidor. There were smoked ham sandwiches and smokey bacon crisps. The jukebox played Smokey Robinson and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. It was the end of an era. Saturday night was the last night when it was possible to smoke in public in England and to mark the occasion at the Rock Tavern we held a bit of a SmokeFest.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the introduction of the ban has been how little resistance there has been. There is the odd attempt to get pubs designated as foreign embassies, or hospices (both of which are exempted from the ban), and a couple of cases taken to Human Rights' courts, but in the main smokers have rolled over and taken it meekly.

I don't want to get into the debate about whether the ban is right or wrong from a public health perspective : it is not an interesting debate and now that I am retired I don't have to waste my time with such things. The thing which worries me about the ban is that, in effect, it is another powerful move towards individual isolation. It is a ban on smoking in public places - by definition places where people gather together. Places where people come into contact with people of different backgrounds, different ideas and different perspectives. The pubs, clubs and bingo halls that will be affected by the ban are part of the vital superstructure of society. Without them people sit at home. Drink at home. Smoke at home. Their view of the outside world is achieved via a media window. Interesting people are no longer people like Old Jack - who has been coming down to the club for forty years and was on the North Sea convoys during the war - but so-called celebrities who have the substance of tissue-paper. Differing opinions are no longer the beer-stimulated, smoke-encrusted arguments that have taken place in many a Tap Room but what the Sun says on Page 2 compared to the slightly different view it gives on Page 7.

No doubt within the next few months there will be many a study which says that we are healthier because of the ban. They will say that we will probably all live longer. And as we sit in our bubble-wrapped front rooms passively listening to the television, it will certainly feel longer.

Black Friar

For a time, during the late 1970s, I had a job leading parties of foreign visitors on tours of historic London pubs. One of my favourite sto...